“Let me first be clear,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told assembled press while campaigning late in April. “Prime Minister Sogavare has been very clear to me saying there will be no such bases. That is what he has said, and so he clearly shares our red line.”
The words rippled across the Pacific. They suggested the Morrison government, typically cautious in its rhetoric on affairs in the region, had lost control of the narrative, succumbing to the political temptation to look strong on national security during the height of an election campaign, despite the consequences.
Morrison’s “red line” comment came after Solomon Islands, under the leadership of four-time prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, a 67-year-old political stalwart, recently signed a controversial security deal with Beijing. The deal, negotiated in stealth, has sparked fears that a Chinese military base could be built on Australia’s doorstep. It has injected a sensitive foreign policy issue into Australia’s federal election campaign.
While the deal appeared to catch the government off guard, the warnings have been clear.
“My thinking all along was that there was going to be a shift in this direction,” says Peter Kenilorea Jr, an opposition MP in Solomon Islands who has opposed Sogavare’s China policy. “I can draw a straight line between this agreement and what happened after the diplomatic switch.”
The “switch” is a policy begun in 2019, when a recently re-elected Sogavare abandoned a longstanding relationship with Taiwan in favour of new ties with Beijing.
Chinese investors swooped immediately into Solomon Islands. A Beijing-backed firm tried to lease the island of Tulagi, which has access to a deepwater port. A defunct goldmine was reanimated with $800 million of Chinese capital. And Sogavare’s pet project – the 2023 Pacific Games – was buoyed by Beijing’s promises to build facilities.
As Sogavare’s ties with Beijing grew, however, the public grew angry. In November 2021, major riots broke out on the steps of the Honiara parliament. The prime minister had to be removed in an unmarked vehicle for his protection.
Witnesses claimed Sogavare travelled on back roads before arriving at the well-fortified headquarters of the Solomon Islands’ Royal Police Force. It was only from this secure location that he could begin co-ordinating the response, which included requesting security assistance from Australia.
It took more than six hours from the time Sogavare left his office at parliament before he appeared on national television calling for calm, and another 24 hours for Australian peacekeepers to arrive in Honiara.
For Sogavare, the support from Australia did not feel guaranteed.
“There was a lot of debate at the time about whether Australia should prop up Sogavare” says Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand.
“[Sogavare] may very well have been cognisant of that and thought, ‘I need another option here.’ I think he has concerns about his own political survival.”
Sogavare’s anxiety over his personal security has its origins in the early days of his political career. He first ascended to the prime ministership in 2000 after his predecessor, Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, resigned at gunpoint, having been kidnapped by militia during the 1998-2003 period of civil conflict known as the Tensions.
There is no suggestion by The Saturday Paper that Sogavare was involved in Ulufa’alu’s 2000 ouster, but Kenilorea Jr believes this episode influences Sogavare today.
“He’s quite paranoid. He has got a personality of paranoia around him and that goes back to the history. He came to be the prime minister through circumstances that were quite violent,” says Kenilorea Jr. “And to a certain degree, it still haunts him.”
Professor Clive Moore, a pre-eminent historian of Solomon Islands, believes “the prime ministers are vulnerable” in Solomon Islands. “There have been political assassinations during the Tensions. It is quite possible for someone to walk up to him and shoot him dead,” says Moore.
The China security deal provides Sogavare some insurance against such an ouster. It also highlights Sogavare’s political skill, which appears to have been underestimated by Australia.
“[Sogavare] is a survivor,” says Powles. “He’s incredibly smart, he is Machiavellian. I strongly believe he is leveraging strategic anxieties to ensure his political survival.”
It’s a strategy that appears fruitful. In response to the security deal, Washington dispatched Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s chief diplomat in the Indo-Pacific, to Honiara.
The United States committed to “practical” development projects and cleaning up unexploded World War II ordinances and promised to expedite the opening of its Honiara embassy.
In its readout from the meeting, Honiara also claimed the Americans had showered praise on Sogavare, acknowledging his “outstanding leadership through the many challenges facing the young nation”.
In Australia, meanwhile, Sogavare’s security deal foreshadowed a commitment by the federal opposition to do more in the Pacific, signalling that under a Labor government greater investment in the Solomons would be likely.
These pledges have buoyed Sogavare’s standing with allies in Honiara, who now believe his China gambit will deliver an economic windfall for the impoverished island nation.
With the Morrison government out of options, it is now trying to shape Sogavare through provocative language.
“Maybe [the Morrison government] is trying to make enough noise to frighten Sogavare so he doesn’t allow [the Chinese base],” argues Moore. “But Sogavare doesn’t frighten easily.”
This rhetorical shift may not have any significant influence over Honiara, but it could further undermine Australia’s standing in the Pacific.
There is some suggestion China announced the pact when it did to exploit tension in the Australian election campaign. “Knowing Beijing,” Powles says, “the timing was probably deliberate.”
Australia’s tone since the deal was leaked, she argues, has “been symptomatic of the fact that it is an election period”. The forceful rhetoric from Morrison has provided an opportunity for Beijing to “leverage off the hyperbole” of the Australian response and in doing so improve its diplomatic standing in Honiara.
Morrison’s “red line” threat was coupled with heated language by Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who argued that in the wake of the security deal Australia should “prepare for war”.
It is an approach that has called into question just how deep Australia’s influence in the Pacific runs. The country’s inadequate stance on climate change, the key issue for Pacific governments, is also being seen as detrimental to Canberra’s efficacy in the region.
After the security deal was leaked in late March, Sogavare delivered a speech to parliament defending the deal and criticising Solomon Islands’ traditional partners.
In an attack on “countries we hold so dear”, Sogavare argued their “attitude is … ‘We do not care if the atoll countries will go underwater in 20 years’ time …’ We find that very hypocritical and insulting.”
Those who have been watching Sogavare through his career, however, don’t believe his engagement with China could have been entirely avoided. Kenilorea Jr thinks that the China deal was a “fait accompli”.
But Powles argues that the depth of relationships between Australia and Solomon Islands is too shallow. Had better relationships been maintained, the China deal might not have been avoided but the substance of the deal may have been less harmful to Australia’s interests, she says.
Moore notes that Sogavare has been quietly engaging China since 2006 but suggests that Australia has not been focused enough on the Solomon Islands since its 13-year peacekeeping mission ended in 2017.
“Australia has played this very badly. They really have not given the Solomon Islands the attention once [the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands] ended,” says Moore.
As the recriminations begin in Australia, in the Solomons the real world consequences of the new arrangement are beginning to sink in. Israel Sibia, a pastor who lost his job after voicing concerns about Chinese involvement in Solomon Islands, believes his country risks becoming “the Hong Kong of the Pacific”.
“I believe our freedom of speech, our freedom of expression will be taken out,” he says.
Kenilorea Jr is also anxious. “There’s a heavy dependence we have on China now. That for me breeds vulnerability for us. We will need to extract ourselves.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Wait and switch".
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